Thomas Aquinas' Ethics: An Analysis
ALSO CALLED THE ANGELIC DOCTOR and the Prince of Scholastics, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is an Italian philosopher and theologianwho ranks among the most important thinkers of the medieval time period.
In Ethics, Aquinas depends so heavily on Aristotle. Like the Greek philosopher, Aquinas believes that all actions are directed towards ends and that happiness is the final end.Aquinas also thinks that happiness is not equated with pleasure, material possessions, honor, or any sensual good, but consists in activities in accordance with virtue. A person needs a moral character cultivated through the habits of choice to realize real happiness. But like Augustine, Aquinas declares that this ultimate happiness is not attainable in this life, forhappiness in the present life remains imperfect. True happiness,then, is to be found only in the souls of the blessed inheaven orin beatitude with God.
Types of Laws
Central also in Aquinas ethics is his typology of laws. By the term ‘law’, he means an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by someone who has care of the community. Aquinas’ laws should also be understood in terms of “rules and measures” for people’s conduct and as “rational patterns or forms”. Obedience to the law is thus viewed also as participating in or being in conformity with the pattern or form. For Aquinas, there are four primary types of law—the eternal, natural, human, and divine.
The eternal law refers to the rational plan of God by which all creation is ordered. As God is the supreme ruler of everything, the rational pattern or form of the universe that exists in His mind is the law that directs everything in the universe to its appointed end. To this eternal law, everything in the universe is subject.
The natural law is that aspect of the eternal law which is accessible to human reason. Because mankind is part of the eternal order, there is a portion of the eternal law that relates specifically to human conduct. This is the moral law, the law or order to which people are subject by their natureordering them to do good and avoid evil.
The human law refers to the positive laws. For natural law to be adhered to, more exact and forceful provisions of human law are helpful. Because the natural law is too broad to provide particular guidance, the human law’s precise, positive rules of behavior are supposed to spell out what the natural law prescribes. Moral virtues are also reinforced by and cultivated through these human laws. This human law includes the civil and criminal laws, though only those formulated in the light of practical reason and moral laws. Human laws that are against natural law are not real laws, and people are not obliged to obey those unjust laws.
The divine law serves to complement the other types of law. Itis a law of revelation, disclosed through sacred text or Scriptures and the Church which is also directed toward man’s eternal end. Though concerned also with external aspects of conduct, the divine law is more focused on how man can be inwardly holy and eventually attain salvation.
The Natural Law and Ethics
Obviously, the type of law that is primarily significant in Ethics is the natural law. Part of this natural law is our inherentnatural tendency to pursue the behavior and goals appropriate to us.
According to Aquinas, this natural law is knowable by natural reason. For instance, our practical reason naturally comprehends that good is to be promoted and evil is to be avoided. By virtue of a faculty of moral insight or conscience that Thomas called synderesis, we also have natural inclinations to some specific goods. Aquinas enumerates three sets of these inclinations: to survive, to reproduce and educate offspring, and to know the truth about God and to live in society. These prescriptions to have families, love God and our neighbors, and pursue knowledge are but rationally obvious precepts and simply stand to reason.
Grasping the prescriptions of the natural law and using our practical reason are necessary in determining which means will direct us to our ultimate end. Accordingly, this concept helps us in judging some deeds as moral or otherwise. The principle is simple: the closer an action approaches our end, the more moral it is; the further it departs, the more immoral. Concerning sexuality, Thomas for instance argues that its ends involve procreation within the bond of marriage and unifying the married couple. From this principle, it is not hard to judge fornication and adultery as immoral since both acts never serve to fulfill the abovementioned purposes. Using the same principle, homosexual affairs are obviously unjust as well.
Features of Human Actions
Aquinas evaluates human actions on the basis not only of their conformity to the natural law but also of their specific features. He mentions at least three aspects through which the morality of an act can be determined—in terms of its species, accidents, and end.
The species of an action refers to its kind. It is also called the object of the action. Human deeds may be divided into kinds, some of which are good (e.g. improving one’s own property), some bad (e.g. theft), and some indifferent or neutral (e.g. walking in the park). Aquinas holds that for an action to be moral, it must be good or at least not bad in species.
The accidents simply refer to the circumstances surrounding the action. In ethically evaluating an action, thecontext in which the action takes place is also considered because an act might be flawed through its circumstances. For instance, while Christians are bound to profess one’s belief in God, there are certain situations in which it is inopportune and inappropriate or even offensive and distasteful to do so.
The end stands for the agent’s intention. An act might be unjust through its intention. To intend to direct oneself against a good is clearly immoral. Aquinas gives murder, lying, and blasphemy as instantiations of this ill will. Correspondingly, a bad intention can spoil a good act, like giving of alms out of vainglory. Nonetheless, an intention, no matter how good it may be, cannot redeem a bad act. For Aquinas, theft is intrinsically bad. Hence, stealing to give to the poor, as in the case of Robin Hood, is an unjust act. In this view, converting to a particular religion, say Christianity, merely for material gains is an unjust act.
Aquinas ethical theory states that for an action to be moral, the kind it belongs to must not be bad, the circumstances must be appropriate, and the intention must be virtuous.
Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that the particulars of the situation have to be considered in determining what course of action should be done. To act well in each situation, one however will always need the so-called virtues. These virtues serve as personal guidelines equipping us to achieve practical ends.
Aquinas defines virtue as “a good habit bearing on activity,” or a good faculty-habit. Habits are firm dispositions or “hard to eradicate” qualities that dispose us to act in a particular manner. Notice that not all habits are virtue, but only those that incline us towards our good or end.
Aquinas differentiates between acquired and infused habits. The autonomous will of a person plays a major role in acquired habits as they involve consistent deliberate effort to do an act time and again and despite obstructions. The infused virtues on the other hand are independent of this process as they are directly instilled by God in our faculties. These virtues are thus divine gifts which elevate the activities of those who received them.
Aquinas mentions at least two kinds of infused virtues—the moral and the theological. Moral virtues have as their object not God Himself, but activities that are less virtuous and inferior to the final end. To this kind belong the four basic virtues—prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice.
The theological virtues, on the other hand, are concerned directly with God. They provide us with true knowledge and desire of God and of His will. Faith, hope, and love serve to attune us to our final end, which is God Himself. Faith makes us recognize and believe in the true God, hope makes us wish to be with Him, and love makes us desire and adore Him. Unlike Aristotle’s virtues, Christian virtues are not applications of the golden mean between extremes. We ought to exercise these virtues according to what God demands of us and according to our capacity as individuals.
Aquinas also treats the theological virtues in terms of the vices and sins which respectively conflict with them. The virtue of faith has as its counterpart the sins of unbelief, heresy, and apostasy; the virtue of hope, the sins of despair and presumption; and the virtue of charity or love, the sins of hatred, envy, discord, and sedition.
One of Aquinas’ contributions in Ethics is to mention, as much as possible, all of the things that matter in ethical evaluation of actions. He holds that the goodness or badness of an action lies in the interior act of will, in the external bodily act, in the very nature of the act, and even in its consequences. Moreover, he avers that what matters in morality is not only what one actually does but also his intention in doing the act.
Being relatively complex but generally sensible, Thomistic ethics, like that of Augustine, does not fall into just one neat contemporary category of moral theory. By not giving emphasis on the result of actions in his so-called features of actions, we can say that he is more of a deontologist or Kantian than a utilitarian. Though his basic tenet that actions must be directed to what is good somehow relates his theory to utilitarianism and consequentialism in general. By advocating the roles played by virtues in morality, Aquinas, like Aristotle, is a virtue ethicist. But while Aquinas is in many ways Aristotelian, he rejects the belief normally ascribed to Aristotle that there are no universally true general principles of morality. Aquinas’ doctrine of natural law categorically discards wholesale particularism.
Because of his notion of the natural law, we can say that Aquinas is definitely against some contemporary moral philosophies. Sure enough, the doctrine is incompatible with nihilism or the view that denies the existence of values. It is also irreconcilable with relativism and conventionalism which state that values are completely relative to one’s culture or determined completely by mere convention. Because Aquinas believes that some basic principles about morality are in fact knowable by all, he is thus against absolute skepticism about value.
Thomistic ethics is comparatively applicable. His specific prescriptions to do good, avoid evil, pursue knowledge, and live at peace with our neighbors suggest, for instance, that governments should uphold scientific and technological endeavors that intend to produce advantageous outcomes. On the other hand, the theory recommends that no institutions should advocate the production of weapons of mass destruction or the abuse of human beings by others.
Unsurprisingly, we can find many similarities between Aquinas’ moral philosophy and that of his co-theologian Augustine. Though to a large extent, Aquinas departs from the Augustinian view of the world as sin-laden and disordered. He, instead, promotes Aristotle’s positive depictions of the world as rational, humane, and ordered. Compared to Augustine, Aquinas is more inclined to view earthly happiness as also desirable, but insofar as those present goods are directed toward and subordinated to the realization of everlasting ones in heaven. (© 2013 by Jensen DG. Mañebog & Mark Joseph T. Calano)
Jensen DG. Mañebog is a Philosophy professor, editorial consultant of an academic site, and Professorial Lecturer in the Graduate School of a state university in Metro Manila, Philippines.
Mark Joseph T. Calano, the current president of the Philosophical Association of the Philippines (PAP), teaches at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU).
Their Ethics book (“Ethics: A Critical Evaluation of Moral Philosophies”) comprehensively introduces and analyses various ethical theories and worldviews.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSIONS
1. Whatis the role of synderesis in moral living?
2. For Aquinas, how is true happiness attained?
3. What is natural law? What is its significance in ethics?
4. Explain Aquinas’ philosophy of man.
Write a comparative essay entitled, “Augustine vs. Aquinas: The Better Ethicist.”
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Tags: Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Christian Philosophy, Thomism, Scholasticism, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Catholicism, Christianity, Social Studies, Sociology, Social Science, Analysis or Critique of Aquinas’ Ethics
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